Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Art in the Flatland

Below is an extract from Herber Marcuse's "One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society", a book in which the author analyses the mechanisms of technological and social normalization in the west which, while producing the image of choice and plurality through mass media, shopping and democratic histrionics, simultaneously and with clinical psychological efficiency, precludes any possibility for genuine critique and/or radically alternative modes of living. It was first published in 1964 and lays out a very exacting critique of the sort of capitalist realist society whose apotheosis, and greatest crisis we are currently experiencing. And yet still we are finding it impossible to imagine, let alone enact any alternatives, and this is precisely because of the many impoverishments and infantilisms that have atrophied our  critical and imaginative faculties, from the reduction of language into a kind of positive capitalist newspeak (complexity, the non-functional, the un-popular are all excluded from the flatland of our language, whose most recent form is that of the tweet and most enduring that of the news presenter and the advertisement), to the rapid and total absorption of the arts (traditionaly the sanctified place of externality, condoned critique, and realm of the just-possible and imaginary) as functional cogs in the great mechanism of pacification. It is the arts as a place free from the relentless positivism of today's general society, a negative place, negative in the best sense, free from the pressure to do, to act, to produce, to buy, to perform, to tweet, to immediately construct thoughts as facebook status updates, it is the arts as a place where the lie is revealed at the core of everyone else's truth that the extract below touches upon. Obviously for the full force of the argument I recommend reading the whole book.

^Shoppers In Westfield, Shepherd's Bush, London (source)
The truth of literature and art has always been granted (if it was granted at all) as one of a “higher” order, which should not and indeed did not disturb the order of business. What has changed in the contemporary period is the difference between the two orders and their truths. The absorbent power of society depletes the artistic dimension by assimilating its antagonistic contents. In the realm of culture, the new totalitarianism manifests itself precisely in a harmonizing pluralism, where the most contradictory works and truths peacefully coexist in indifference.

Prior to the advent of this cultural reconciliation, literature and art were essentially alienation, sustaining and protecting the contradiction –the unhappy consciousness of the divided world, the defeated possibilities, the hopes unfulfilled, and the promises betrayed. They were a rational, cognitive force, revealing a dimension of man and nature which was repressed and repelled in reality. Their truth was in the illusion evoked, in the insistence on creating a world in which the terror of life was called up and suspended –mastered by recognition. This is the miracle of the chef d’oeuvre; it is the tragedy, sustained to the last, and the end of tragedy –its impossible solution. To live one’s love and hatred, to live that which one is means defeat, resignation, and death. The crimes of society, the hell that man has made for man become unconquerable cosmic forces.

The tension between the actual and the possible is transfigured into an insoluble conflict, in which reconciliation is by grace of the oeuvre as form: beauty as the “promesse de Bonheur.” In the form of the oeuvre, the actual circumstances are placed in another dimension where the given reality shows itself as that which it is. Thus it tells the truth about itself; its language ceases to be that of deception, ignorance, and submission. Fiction calls the facts by their name and their reign collapses; fiction subverts everyday experience and shows it to be mutilated and false. But art has this magic power only as the power of negation. It can speak its own language only as long as the images are alive which refuse and refute the established order.

^Arnold Bocklin's Isle of the Dead (+a number)
To be sure, alienation is not the sole characteristic of art. An analysis, and even a statement of the problem is outside the scope of this work, but some suggestions may be offered for clarification. Throughout whole periods of civilization, art appears to be entirely integrated into its society. Egyptian, Greek, and Gothic art are familiar examples; Bach and Mozart are usually also cited as testifying to the “positive” side of art. The place of the work of art in a pre-technological and two-dimensional culture is very different from that in a one-dimensional civilization, but alienation characterizes affirmative as well as negative art.

The decisive distinction is not the psychological one between art created in joy and art created in sorrow, between sanity and neurosis, but that between the artistic and societal reality. The rupture with the latter, the magic or rational transgression, is an essential quality of even the most affirmative art; it is alienated also from the very public to which it is addressed. No matter how close and familiar the temple of cathedral were to the people who lived around them, they remained in terrifying or elevated contrast to the daily life of the slave, the peasant, and the artisan –and perhaps even to that of their masters.

Whether ritualized or not, art contains the rationality of negation. In its advanced positions, it is the Great Refusal –the protest against that which is. The modes in which man and things are made to appear, to sing and sound and speak, are modes of refuting, breaking, and recreating their factual existence. But these modes of negation pay tribute to the antagonistic society to which they are linked. Separated from the sphere of labour where society reproduces itself and its misery, the world of art which they create remains, with all its truth, a privilege and an illusion.

In this form it continues, in spite of all democratization and popularization, through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. The “high culture” in which this alienation is celebrated has its own rites and its own style. The salon, the concert, opera, theatre are designed to create and invoke another dimension of reality. Their attendance requires festive-like preparation; they cut off and transcend everyday experience.

^Kate and Will the Royal Couple depicted in 'Street Art' as Punk Heroes
Now this essential gap between the arts and the order of the day, kept open in the artistic alienation, is progressively closed by the advancing technological society. And with its closing, the Great Refusal is in turn refused; the “other dimension” is absorbed into the prevailing state of affairs. The works of alienation are themselves incorporated into this society and circulate as part and parcel of the equipment which adorns and psycho-analyses the prevailing state of affairs. This they become commercials –they sell, comfort, or excite.
The neo-conservative critics of leftist critics of mass culture ridicule the protest against Bach as background music in the kitchen, against Plato and Hegel, Shelley and Baudelaire, Marx and Freud in the drugstore. Instead, they insist on recognition of the fact that the classics have left the mausoleum and come to life again, that people are just so much more educated. True, but coming to life as classics, they come to life as other than themselves; they are deprived of their antagonistic force, of the estrangement which was the very dimension of their truth. The intent and function of these works have thus fundamentally changed. If they once stood in contradiction to the status quo, this contradiction is now flattened out.

But such assimilation is historically premature; it establishes cultural equality while preserving domination.
Now this remoteness has been removed and with it the transgression and the indictment. The text and the tone are still there, but the distance is conquered which made them 'Luft von anderen Planeten'. The artistic alienation has become as functional as the architecture of the new theatres and concert halls in which it is performed. And here too, the rational and the evil are inseparable. Unquestionably the new architecture is better, i.e., more beautiful and more practical than the monstrosities of the Victorian era. But it is also more “integrated” –the cultural centre is becoming a fitting part of the shopping centre, or municipal centre, or government centre. Domination has its own aesthetics, and democratic domination has its democratic aesthetics. It is good that almost everyone can now have the fine arts at his fingertips, by just turning a knob on his set, or by just stepping into the drugstore. In this diffusion, however, they become cogs in a culture-machine which remakes their content.